We have yet to see an American Great War postcard, and this one, showing members of 308 HQ Company at Camp Upton, near Yaphank on Long Island, New York State, in January 1918, is not only rather a good one, I think, but opens the door to another, possibly familiar, tale of woe.
Probably due to the influx of soldiers from another already infected training camp – fourteen of the largest camps in America had reported an earlier wave of influenza outbreaks as early as March, but little serious notice had been taken – Spanish flu duly arrived in Camp Upton in mid-September 1918.
In days, 171 of the 43,000 men stationed at the camp were in the camp’s hospital with flu-like symptoms, and all leave had been cancelled. The camp was closed to visitors, the camp commander nevertheless telling the New York Times that there had been no deaths and that the camp had not been affected as badly as others.
Famous last words. Within a fortnight, there were over 3,000 influenza cases at the camp, and seventy five soldiers had already died.
According to the New York Times, ‘Soldiers will not be permitted to sit opposite each other at mess tables. Foodstuffs other than in sealed packages will not be sold in the post exchanges, and no person unmasked will be permitted in any YMCA or other welfare building’.
Men were directed to remain in their own section of the camp unless unavoidable, and a single case of flu would see the lockdown of a whole barracks (above, with the camp hospital in the distance). 1st October saw the death toll rise by fifteen, 4th October saw a further 500 men hospitalised, the total now exceeding 4,300, and the deaths continued, another twenty men dying on 5th October.
The camp hospital had by this point been overwhelmed, temporary hospital wards having to be established, sheets were hung between beds (above, although the sheets in this picture are unused, perhaps temporarily rolled up to allow the photograph to be taken), and all men in the camp were instructed to wear gauze masks to prevent transmission of the disease. The Journal of the American Medical Society reported that medical officers were horrified at the sight of ‘the hopelessly sick and dying and at the magnitude of the catastrophe’.
And yet, within a fortnight, the measures taken rapidly began to slow the spread of the epidemic and by 22nd October, when just eleven new flu cases were admitted to the camp hospital, the crisis was deemed to be over. In little more than a month the flu epidemic at Camp Upton had seen more than 6,000 men and women hospitalised, and 404 deaths.